Taking the risk to feel the pain of the world, and the love that can change it

Sometimes I wish I just taught math or physics—something dry and formulaic that would not require wading publicly into the messy, unclear, painful areas of life and interpersonal relations. My current mantra is “the personal is planetary.” If this is so, what does it mean for the planet that such a high percentage of my students over the years have revealed such terrible pain and suffering in the classroom over and over again?

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Plotkin’s magisterial work Nature and the Human Soul, in which he argues that human civilization has been stuck for too long (since Gilgamesh, I’d say) in an adolescent stage of development, where young men are encouraged in their shallow enjoyment of violence, sex and glory, and young women are encouraged to be pretty, compliant and deferent to authority.

The students at my institution are generally trying very hard to resist this overwhelming cultural message.  They try to think outside the box.  They have an earnest desire to be politically correct and intellectually sophisticated. It’s all very well on the purely academic front.  But what happens when the cracks in that academic façade appear and reveal deep emotions—anger, grief, fear, desire—that go way beyond the bounds of the merely academic?

Sometimes these emotions can be so frightening that the only sane response seems to be to numb out on drugs (licit & illicit) or get distracted by media entertainment & competition & the race to keep one’s economic head above water. Somehow in my classes these tumultuous, unruly emotions often come leaping into the foreground.  I allow and sometimes even encourage our class discussions to “go there,” to go into that dangerous gray zone between the purely intellectual/theoretical and the deeply personal lived experience. I believe that this is the zone where the most productive new thinking happens, the kind that can shift paradigms and change worlds.  So I’m willing to risk the discomfort of venturing outside our collective comfort zones, in the hopes that a spark set off in one of our class discussions or activities will ignite a fiery passion that goes well beyond the narrow confines of this class, this semester, or any one student’s career.

But in the aftermath, as I think back on the tears shed, the furrowed brows of the listeners, the potential for aftershocks to occur outside the relatively safe space of the classroom, I can’t rest easy.  I feel deeply, myself, the responsibility of leadership, even in the relatively small scale of the classroom.  The ripples of our conversations on any given day may spread out for many years, affecting those of us who listened and bore witness to his pain in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Some believe that we human beings are the consciousness of the planet. If the personal is planetary and vice versa, then it could be that these young people are in some sense channeling the pain of our planet itself. We owe it to our youth, to ourselves, and to the great planet we call home, to—at minimum—listen with respect, try to understand, and consider how our choices and actions can contribute to or lessen the pain.

It’s risky to do this active listening and thinking aloud, in the moment, rather than waiting until we are sure we “have it right,” “understand it all,” or “know what to do.”  But we don’t have the luxury of time now to get it all perfect.  The best we can do is continually check in with our own emotions, and try to be sure that whatever we say or do is rooted in compassion, concern and a sincere desire to make things better.

“In a voiced community we all flourish,” says Terry Tempest Williams.  Blowing with love on the shaky fires of these suffering voices, bringing them into a nourishing, respectful community, will help ease not only human suffering, but also, potentially, as the ripples spread out, the suffering of so many living beings on the planet.

LOVE—the one emotion that trumps all others, on both the personal and the planetary scale.  The one emotion we can never have too much of, and the one out of which new potentialities continually spring. 6a00d83451c79e69e2015432a3f0e2970c-253x300May the tears we shed as we think about the pain of the world water the dry, numbed-out hearts of those who profess not to care about the links between the health of humans and of the natural world.

May we take the pain born of love, and channel it into personal and planetary healing.  May we be wise enough to see the connections between our actions and their ripple effects in human society and the planet writ large. May we learn to feel all the love we’re capable of as humans and to act out of that deep wellspring of emotion. Let it be so.  Let’s make it so.

Leave a comment


  1. Carole Spearin McCauley

     /  May 16, 2014

    Dear Jennifer, Am glad that you have discovered Mary Daly’s work, I knew her in NY and as a recovering Catholic, I certainly cared to talk with her. I still hope to talk with you about your book ms. Please let me know when a good time to phone you would be and which phone. I’m the one who fell onto cement and broke her pelvis at BWWF. Good wishes from Carole Spearin McCauley 603643-4411

  2. Dear Jenny,
    This is a remarkably insightful, beautiful and necessary essay. Thank you for sharing this profound truth. May your deep words spread far and wide.

    • gardenange

       /  May 17, 2014

      Could not agree more, Kaya.
      Jen, give my love to the daughter weeping for her mother.
      If possible pass on mother-love to all your young people losing parents to this plague of cancer.
      Thank you for bearing witness for us all, to the connection between human health and that of Earth.

      • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

         /  May 17, 2014

        Thank you, Kaya and Ange. Ange, I always feel when you comment on the blog that our communication from opposite sides of the globe helps encircle the planet with the strong strands of mother-love, gossamer-fine but steely, like the fierce love we all feel for our children.

        A question I’ve asked before on this blog is coming up for me strongly again: how could it be that we love our children so much, and would do anything to keep them safe and send them out into the world with every benefit we are able to provide, and yet we can, at the same time, be inactive and indifferent to the effect so many of our actions have on the health of our most fundamental life support system, Mother Earth?

        This is a question I wrestle with daily. If I were truly to act on what I know about the way my dependence on fossil fuels (for example) is destroying the planet I love and wrecking my children’s future–WHAT WOULD I DO???? What should I be doing, given my talents and limitations? If I were to give my all to this struggle, what path would I take, what would my whole-hearted plunge look like?

  3. Anna

     /  May 17, 2014

    Young adults certainly have much to be concerned about.

    Recently, some of my guitar students performed at a student show. I was surprised to see a former student of mine in the audience. I had taught him and some of his school pals when they were in middle school. Now he’s just graduated from college having majored in communications. During the past year he worked for a news service and was hoping for a promotion with decent wages and benefits, but that didn’t happen. So he’s returned to the house where he grew up, and is living again with his younger sisters and parents. I can’t help but wonder how long he’ll be living at home while navigating his way through the current job market.

    He says recent college graduates with engineering degrees are the ones being hired. I hate to see this young man become pessimistic about finding meaningful work. He’s always been a highly creative and focused person, wide open musically in composing and recording his own work. Over the years he given me several of his CD’s. The one he gave me at the last student show reflects his sense of fluidity in these uncertain times.

  4. leavergirl

     /  May 26, 2014

    Bunny trail here, a bit. NY Times did a thing on Dark Mountain. Here’s the link.

    Kingsnorth says something important about McKibben’s approach: “Movements like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, for instance, might engage people, Kingsnorth told me, but they have no chance of stopping climate change. “I just wish there was a way to be more honest about that,” he went on, “because actually what McKibben’s doing, and what all these movements are doing, is selling people a false premise. They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people. And those people . . . they’re going to feel despair.”

  5. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  May 27, 2014

    Yes, I read that piece when it came out, Leavergirl–thanks for the reminder about it. It’s true–the world as we know it is coming to an end. And the dying throes of this world won’t be pretty. And we have to live through them, we’re the ones–or our children and grandchildren, at the very latest. I know that despair and depression and numbing out are perfectly logical responses to our predicament. And yet…and yet….we do have a choice. We are all going to die sooner or later. The question is, how are we going to live? I think constantly about this question of what to do with my precious, fleeting time. I think the best thing to do is probably to focus, as you have, on rooting ourselves in resilient communities, building them from the ground up if necessary. I’m not quite there yet myself–I’d say I’m about 5 years away from being ready to take that leap. Do I have the time to wait? Not sure. I just have to trust my gut and have faith that I’ll know when the time comes to really break with the old mold and focus on building the new. Until then, I’m in transition, in the breach, being the bridge and the beacon to help others–including all the young people I work with–find their own ways across.

  6. ninjanurse

     /  June 7, 2014

    Is that why so many of our children are depressed? They see the crash coming? It’s almost painful to see how good life can be, how much we have to lose. Where there’s fear there’s power, all the emotions we deny.


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